Loretta J. Ross
Only justice can stop a curse.
-- Alice Walker
This essay reviews the activism of African-American women in the abortion rights movement, highlighting the past fifty years.1 Many observers mistakenly view African-American women's struggle for abortion rights and reproductive freedom in the 1990s as reflecting a relatively recent commitment. More accurately, this activism should be placed in the context of our historical struggle against racism, sexism, and poverty.
The fact is, when methods of fertility control have been available and accessible, African-American women have advocated for and used these strategies even more frequently than their white counterparts.2 For example, when family Planning was first institutionalized in Louisiana in 1965, Black women were six times more likely than white women to sign up for contraception.3
But when contraceptives were unavailable and abortion was illegal, septic abortions were a primary killer of African-American women. One study estimated that 80 percent of deaths caused by illegal abortions in New York in the 1960s involved Black and Puerto Rican women.4 In Georgia between 1965 and 1967 the Black maternal death rate due to illegal abortion was fourteen times that of white women.5
Central to my argument is the fact that African-American women have never been "one dimensional victims of patriarchy."6 Nor have we been one-dimensional activists. African-American women have made consistent and critical activist contributions to the evolution of the reproductive rights movement in the United, States. Already in the early 1990s the Black women's club movement joined forces with early proponents of birth control and called for the placement of family-planning clinics in Black neighborhoods while criticizing eugenics or population control forces.
Black women in the 1920s and 1930s wanted individual control overfertility, while at the same time they resisted... [continues]
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